For many years, like most coaches and teachers in the personal development sphere, I’ve rejected the word should.

A story that says you should do something that doesn’t align with what is true for you can brew shame, guilt, savior complexes, burnout, and all sorts of unhappiness.

While all this is true, I wonder what we lose when we eliminate the word should from our vocabularies entirely.

What does should actually mean?

One of Merriam Webster’s many definitions for the word should is an expression of obligation.

And Merriam Webster offers several definitions for obligation, including:

  • something (such as a formal contract, a promise, or the demands of conscience or custom) that obligates one to a course of action
  • a debt of gratitude
  • something one is bound to do: duty, responsibility

The Online Etymology Dictionary offers this:

should c. 1200, from Old English sceolde, past tense of sceal (see shall).
shall (v.)

  • Old English sceal, Northumbrian scule “I owe/he owes, will have to, ought to, must” / “to owe, be under obligation”
  • Related via past tense form to Old English scyld “guilt,” German Schuld “guilt, debt”

It fascinates me that a word that emerged one thousand years ago to connote guilt still conjures guilty feelings in us today. And, I believe that with privilege comes responsibility.

I wonder:

Do we—those of us who hold privilege (which is almost all of us, some way more than offers)—not have a debt to pay?

Do we not owe anything?

Is it not appropriate to sometimes feel guilty if we are not actively fulfilling our obligations?

Should we really stop using the word should?

Is it possible that guilt sometimes signals when we’re not honoring our responsibility?

Is it possible that our guilt is trying to hold us accountable?

Now, of course, we can go overboard.

We can feel guilty when we’re already doing more than enough, but we tell ourselves that we’re not enough.

We can get sucked into patterns of overgiving, overachieving, over-giving-to-others, over-taking-responsibility.

These patterns live in me, as they live in many of my clients.

If we don’t fulfill our responsibilities to ourselves, we can burn out.

I certainly do not have the answers.

I offer this as a question to you, and I would love to hear your thoughts:

Given everything I’ve shared, what do you think about the word should?

I imagine that the emotionally mature stance is in the both-and.

Honoring our responsibilities both to the collective and to ourselves.

Both listening to guilt when it tells us that we aren’t doing something we perhaps should do and shining light on the stories that tell us we’re not good enough (stories that arise from the very paradigms of oppression we are working to dismantle).

That’s my best guess for now.

What do you think about reclaiming the word should?

If you feel moved to share, please click hereor hereand share your thoughts in the comments.

I’d love to continue the conversation with you there.


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